Matched, p.33
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       Matched, p.33

         Part #1 of Matched series by Ally Condie
Page 34


  The Official looks at me as if she’s waiting for something. “What do you think?” she asks.

  I’m not sure what she wants, so I hedge. “Of course, the most efficient thing to do would be to get machines. ”

  “That is not an option,” the Official says pleasantly. “Food preparation and distribution needs to be handled by personnel. Live personnel. It’s a rule. But we would like to free up more of the workers for other projects and vocations. ”

  “I don’t see how to make it any more efficient,” I say. “There’s the other obvious answer . . . to make them work more hours . . . but they look exhausted as it is . . . ” My voice trails off, a wisp of steam too smal to matter.

  “We’re not asking you to come up with a solution. ” The Official sounds amused. “Those who are higher up than you have already done that. Hours wil be extended. Leisure hours wil cease. Then some of the personnel from this area can be spared for another vocation. ” I’m beginning to understand and I wish I weren’t. “So if you don’t want me to sort the other variables in the work situation, you want me to—”

  “Sort the people,” she says.

  I feel sick.

  She holds out a datapod. “You have three hours to watch. Enter the numbers of the workers you think are the most efficient, those who should be sent to work on an alternative project. ”

  I look at the numbers on the back of the workers’ shirts. This is like a sort on the screen; I’m supposed to watch for the faster patterns among the workers. They want to see if my mind wil automatical y register the workers who move the most quickly. Computers could do this job and probably have. But now they want to see if I can do it, too.

  “And Cassia,” the Official says from the metal stairs. I look down at her. “Your sort wil hold. That’s part of the test. We want to see if you can make decisions wel when you know they have actual results. ”

  She sees the shock on my face and continues. I can tel she’s trying to be kind. “It’s one shift of one group of menial laborers, Cassia. Don’t worry.

  Just do your best. ”

  “But what’s the other project? Wil they have to leave the City?”

  The Official looks shocked. “We can’t answer that. It’s not relevant to the sort. ” The gray-haired Official, stil breathing heavily, turns back to see what’s happening. She nods to him that she’s on her way down, and then tel s me gently, “Better workers get the better work positions, Cassia. That’s al you need to know. ” I don’t want to do this. For a moment, I contemplate throwing the datapod into one of the sinks, letting it drown.

  What would Ky do if he were the one standing up here?

  I don’t throw the datapod. I take deep breaths. Sweat runs down my back and a piece of my hair fal s into my eyes. I push the hair back with one hand and then I straighten my shoulders and look out at the workers. My eyes dart from place to place. I try not to see faces, only numbers. I look for fast patterns and slow ones. I start to sort.

  The most disturbing part of the whole experience is that I am very, very good at it. Once I tel myself to do what Ky would do, I don’t look back. Over the course of the sort, I watch for pacing and patterns and I watch for stamina. I see the slower, more steady ones who get more done than you might think. I see the quick, deft ones who are the very best. I see the ones who can’t quite keep up. I see their red hands move amid the steam, and I see the pile of foilware moving along in its silver stream as it turns from dirty to clean.

  But I don’t see people. I don’t see faces.

  When the three hours are almost over my sort is complete and I know it’s a good one. I know I’ve classified the best workers in the group by their numbers.

  But I can’t resist. I look at the number of the very middle worker, the one who is right in between the best and the worst of the group.

  I look up. It’s the number on Ky’s back.

  I want to laugh and cry. It’s as though he’s sending me a message. No one fits in the way he does; no one else has mastered the art of being exactly average so wel . For a few seconds I let myself watch the boy in blue plainclothes with the dark hair. My instincts tel me to put him with the more efficient group; I know that’s where he belongs. That’s the group that gets the new vocation. They might have to leave the City, but at least he wouldn’t be trapped here forever. Stil , I don’t think I could do it. What would my life be like if he left?

  I let myself imagine climbing down from that ladder and pul ing Ky close in the middle of al this heat and sound. And then I imagine something even better. I imagine walking over and taking his hand and leading him out of this place into light and air. I could do this. If I sort him into the higher group, he won’t have to work here anymore. His life wil be better. I could be the one to change that for him. And suddenly that desire, the desire to help him, is even stronger than my selfish desire to keep him close.

  But I think of the boy in the story he’s given me. The boy who has done everything he can to survive. What would that boy’s instincts say?

  He would want me to put him in the lower group.

  “Almost finished?” the Official asks me. She waits on the metal steps a few feet below. I nod. She climbs toward me, and I pul up another number of someone who is near the middle so that she doesn’t know I’ve been looking at Ky.

  She stands next to me, looking at the number and then out at the person on the floor. “The middle workers are always the most difficult to sort,” she says with sympathy in her voice. “It’s hard to know what to do. ”

  I nod, but she’s not finished.

  “Menial laborers like these don’t usual y live to eighty,” she says. Her voice hushes. “Many of them are Aberration status, you know. The Society doesn’t worry as much about them reaching optimal age. Many die early. Not horribly early, of course. Not pre-Society early, or Outer Province early. But sixty, seventy. Lower-level vocations in nutrition disposal are particularly dangerous, even with al the precautions we take. ”

  “But . . . ” The shock on my face doesn’t surprise her, and I realize that this must be part of the test, too. Coming across an unknown factor in the middle of an otherwise straightforward sort just when you thought you were done. And I wonder: What’s going on here? Why are the stakes so high for a test sort?

  There’s something happening that is something bigger than me, bigger than Ky.

  “This is al confidential information, of course,” the Official says. Then she glances down at her datapod. “You have two minutes. ” I need to concentrate but my mind is off on another sort of its own, asking questions and lining them up to make an answer: Why do the laborers die early?

  Why couldn’t Grandfather share the food from his plate at the Final Banquet?

  Why do so many Aberrations work in food cleanup?

  They poison the food for the elderly.

  It’s al clear now. Our Society prides itself on never kil ing anyone, having done away with the death penalty, but what I see here and what I’ve heard about the Outer Provinces tel s me that they have found another way to take care of things. The strong survive. Natural selection. With help from our Gods, of course—the Officials.

  If I get to play God, or angel, then I have to do the best I can for Ky. I can’t let him die early and I can’t let him spend his life in this room. There has to be something better out there for him. I have enough faith left in my Society to think that; I have seen many people living good lives, and I want one of those lives to be Ky’s. Whether or not I can be a part of it.

  I sort Ky into the higher group and close the datapod as if the decision has cost me nothing at al .

  Inside, I scream.

  I hope I made the right choice.

  “Tel me more about where you’re from,” I say to Ky on the Hil the next day, hoping he doesn’t hear the desperation in my voice, hoping he doesn’t ask about the sort. I have to know more about his story. I have to know if I did the r
ight thing. The sort has changed things between us; we feel watched, even here in the trees. We speak softly; we don’t look at each other too long.

  “It’s red and orange there. Colors you don’t see here very often. ”

  “That’s true,” I say, and I try to think of things that are red. Some of the dresses at the Match Banquet. The fires in the incinerators. Blood.

  “Why is there so much green and brown and blue here?” he asks me.

  “Maybe because they are growing colors and so much of our Province is agricultural,” I say. “You know. How blue is the color of water, and brown the color of fal and harvest. And green is the color of spring. ”

  “People always say that,” Ky says. “But red is the first color of spring. It’s the real color of rebirth. Of beginning. ” He’s right, I realize. I think of the ruddy color of the tight new buds on the trees. Of the red of his hands the day before in the nutrition disposal center and the new beginning I hope I have given him.


  Warning. Warning. The light on the tracker flashes and words scrol across the screen. You have reached maximum speed earlier than recommended for this exercise session.

  I punch the numbers so that I go even faster.

  Warning. Warning. You have exceeded your optimal heart rate.

  Usual y, when I push too hard on the tracker I stop in time. I take things to the edge but I never jump. But if I go to the edge enough times, I’m going to get pushed over or fal right in.

  Maybe it’s time to jump. But I can’t do it without dragging al the people I love with me.

  Warning. Warning.

  I’m going too fast. I’m too tired. I know it. But my fal stil surprises me.

  My foot slips and before I know it I’m down, down on the tracker with the belt stil going and burning, burning, burning my skin. I lie there for a moment, in shock and on fire, and then I rol off as fast as I can. The tracker keeps going, but it wil notice my absence in a moment. It wil stop and then they wil know I couldn’t keep up. But if I get back on fast enough, no one has to know what happened. I glance at my skin, rubbed raw and red from the moving belt. Red.

  I jump up. I tense my muscles and spring at just the right time and I hit the tracker running. Pound. Pound. Pound pound pound.

  My knees and elbows stream blood and I have tears in my eyes, but I am stil going. The plainclothes wil hide my wounds tomorrow and no one wil ever know that I fel . No one wil ever know what happened until it is too late.

  When I come back upstairs after running on the tracker, my father gestures me toward the port. “Just in time,” he says. “There’s a communication for you. ”

  The sorting Officials wait on the screen. “Your sort looks excel ent,” the blond Official tel s me. “Congratulations on passing the test. I’m sure you’l hear news regarding your work position soon. ”

  I nod my head, sweat dripping off me and blood from my cuts running down my knees and my arms. She can only see the sweat, I think to myself.

  I tug my sleeves down a little to make sure they cover everything, so that no one wil know that I am injured and bloody.

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